Stroll through the doors of the Flamingo, George Gregan’s favourite haunt in his adopted hometown of Carqueiranne, and you’re not quite sure what to expect. A split brow, perhaps. Maybe a shiner, or a nose relocation perhaps.
Certainly, recent dispatches from the south of France suggest Gregan’s time with Toulon has been a touch torrid, with as many cage matches than rugby matches. Just last week, the second division club was fined €10,000 ($16,750) for its part in a ferocious melee with rivals Pau, which resulted in four Toulon players – Gregan included – earning red or yellow cards, and the club’s coach, Tana Umaga, being sent from the field.
Alex Brown writes for RugbyHeaven Aus that Gregan may have retired from international rugby, but the hits, it seems, just keep on coming.
“We’ve had about three or four all-ins since I have been here,” Gregan said, through teeth that appeared to be his own. “It’s a big part of rugby here, and an area that probably needs to be cleaned up by slapping some big suspensions on guys who are in the wrong. A lot of it is quite cowardly, getting hit from the side and big melees forming. But it’s been part of the game for a while over here.”
The retention of Gregan’s looks is due in no small part to the protection offered by his teammates. After all, only the most foolhardy French forward would dare take a swing at the former Australian captain when the likes of Victor Matfield and Anton Oliver are at his side.
Toulon’s back line makes for similarly impressive reading. Outside Gregan stands Andrew Mehrtens and Chris Russouw, of All Blacks and Springboks fame respectively, and beyond them Dan Luger, the former British Lion and England World Cup winner. It is little wonder, then, that Toulon – dubbed the Harlem Globetrotters of rugby by sections of the French media – sit atop the second division, and are on the cusp of promotion to the Top 14. But it hasn’t come cheap. Gregan’s one-year contract at Toulon is reportedly worth €400,000, with the likes of Matfield, Mehrtens and Umaga on similar money. And in the past month, club president and publishing magnate Mourad Boudjellal is rumoured to have offered All Blacks five-eighth Dan Carter about €700,000 to join the club next season.
For some, Boudjellal’s audacious moves have meant for an uneven playing field in the French second division. Not that the Stade Mayol faithful care all that much.
“It has been a pretty special experience to play with some of these guys,” Gregan said. “Obviously, someone like Victor has come over as a world champion, so you’ve got some wonderful players here. We’re pretty much the team that everyone wants to knock off, so you have to be up for that each week. With this Harlem Globetrotters tag and the way we’re perceived in the media, every teams aims up to us.
“But the whole experience has been an eye-opener. The football is totally different to what you play in the southern hemisphere. It’s very focused on the set piece … and it’s a very slow game compared to what I’m used to playing. And then there are the crowds. It’s a wonderful atmosphere; passionate and loud. Our local ground is renowned for it’s local chant ‘Pilou! Pilou!’ and it’s amazing to hear them belt it out.”
Since the Wallabies’ World Cup quarter-final exit in nearby Marseilles last year, Gregan has attempted to disconnect from Australian rugby. That, however, has been difficult, what with the prevalence of New Zealanders and South Africans at the club, all of whom are apparently revelling in the Brumbies’ struggles of late.
Gregan has, though, taken note of several developments at home. The appointment of Robbie Deans as Wallabies coach, he said, was a positive move, as were plans to expand the Super 14 beyond its traditional base and into Asia. But, for the most part, he appears a man content to be removed from the pressures of Australian rugby, which consumed him for more than a decade.
“One thing I did take note of back home was the Aussie cricketers and just the scrutiny they’re under,” he said. “‘Punter’ [Ricky Ponting] and the boys were getting pounded last summer. I don’t miss that at all. At the same time, when you’re in it, it’s just part of the territory. In a lot of ways, it’s almost finishing your career the way you started it.”Tweet